By Wade Coggeshall
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Department of Natural Resources' Division of Nature Preserves has established Spring Wildflowers and Old Growth Forests Field Days to promote the state's nature preserves.
Michael Homoya, an IDNR botanist and ecologist, led one Saturday at Eagle's Crest in Eagle Creek Park.
"Years ago we had what we called 'natural areas conferences'," Homoya said. "Those were discontinued sometime in the mid-'90s. This year is really our first attempt at making that a regular thing again."
The first field days were conducted last fall. They emphasized prairies and were held at several nature preserves in northwest Indiana.
"This year we've moved it over a broader area of the state and are emphasizing spring wildflowers," Homoya said.
Indiana's nature preserves are meant to protect as many vegetation types as possible. Eagle's Crest has mesic forest with Eastern deciduous trees that are rated among the best in the state. It also has a flatwoods portion and big ravines that are "pretty rugged for this part of the state," Homoya said.
Saturday's hike emphasized the spring wildflowers, including some of the lesser-known species such as Jack-in-the-pulpit, trout-lily, and Solomon's-seal.
"It's still a bit chilly," Homoya said. "I think most of them still have their coats on. We're a little behind schedule for what's considered normal for these (hikes). The spring warm-up can either be earlier or later. Last spring was crazy - these hikes were pretty much finished in March. Now here we are in the middle of April and some of these (wildflowers) haven't even opened yet."
The pace of these field days is casual since the guides spend the majority of the time pointing out plant species and describing them.
"We're off-trail much of the time just because there's only really one trail," Homoya said of Eagle's Crest. "To see the greatest diversity (of wildflowers), you need to get off the trail. We like to keep people on trails, but in this case it's going to be allowed just to see more."
More guided hikes are set for May 11 at nature preserves around the state. Homoya, a Brownsburg resident who grew up near Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois, says the DNR hasn't yet decided what the schedule will be for the remainder of this year and next.
"I think our intention is to move them to different nature preserves around the state, just to give more people a chance to see these places," he said. "That's what we're trying to do - expose people to what's out there, that they are special places and are open to the public to be enjoyed."
Homoya calls these preserves "the best and largest examples of the natural landscape. They're somewhat like state parks except our focus is a little narrower. We want to protect them for people and future generations so they'll know what was here, but also offer a sort of quieter type of recreation. If you could imagine what Indiana looked like at the time of statehood, prior to any significant development, that's what we're trying to protect."
These guided hikes are free but registration is required. Visit the website NaturePreserves.dnr.in.gov for more information.